Posts Tagged ‘Reformation’

On Teaching Church History to Undergraduates

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

By R. Barry Levis

Rollins College is almost stridently secular, unlike many other colleges in our consortium. Therefore teaching the history of the Christian Church can be a daunting experience. In some ways our student body at Rollins is bifurcated: we have a large majority of students who have had almost no exposure to Christianity at all and a smaller group who think they know all there is to know about theology and the Bible. Of course we do have some students in the middle of the spectrum, but the extremes seem far better represented. Trying to bridge the gap between those two groups is often a challenge.

I teach three courses that focus entirely on the history of Christianity: a lower–division survey course, Christianity and Society; an upper-division course, the Reformation; and a graduate seminar, Religion and Western Culture (focusing on the Middle Ages and the Reformation). In addition, I include material on the history of religion in most of my other courses where appropriate (and even at times when it is not). Thus I run into the problem of trying to fill in gaps that exist with my secular students and overcoming the misinformation that my religious ones bring into the course.

I normally don’t lecture but use primary source documents as a starting point for questions and discussions. Fortunately most of our students are invariably polite and respectful (although not always), and I encourage them to ask questions about terms and concepts they don’t understand in the readings. In some cases students are too embarrassed or don’t think it is “cool” to ask. Therefore, I am attentive to the glazed look on some students’ faces as a barometer. When I note the blank stare I backtrack and begin defining concepts and filling in historical details. If I’m lucky a more self-assured student will ask. Having been teaching for forty-five years, I should have by this time produced a series of canned answers which I could put on my computer or Blackboard defining Transubstantiation, Canon Law (having nothing to do with military tactics), Original Sin, Atonement, Pentecostals; the list goes on endlessly. Equally challenging are the students who think they have a clear grasp of these technical terms but have any number of misconceptions or denominationally specific understandings of them.

I have prepared a boilerplate speech for the beginning of all my courses dealing with religious subjects: this is a history course and not a Sunday school class. I approach the material from the historical perspective, meaning I will depend on standard forms of historical evidence. Miracles therefore always become problematic. I try to explain that to a person of faith there may be no question about the reality of miracles, but the historian cannot assess them since they cannot be verified by unbiased historical evidence. That always produces scowls in the corners of the room. I emphasize the fact that the Church like every other institution has not remained constant, that it has relentlessly changed including its understanding of the original teaching of Jesus and church doctrine. I also explain when I begin discussing the Reformation, that today I will probably offend some Catholics. But not to worry, I will eventually upset Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists.

I likewise try to shake up the complacency of our students at the very beginning of the course. For instance, I open my survey course with Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography for shock value. Because Dom lives some twenty miles from our campus he has visited on several occasions to discuss his book with my students. It is amazing how students can rail against the author’s conclusions when we have our preliminary class discussion and how silent they become once confronted by the author himself.

I have also used Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus because it provides an excellent introduction to the critical examination of historical sources. Either book obviously causes my more conservative students a good deal of unease, but both religious and secular students learn about the study of early Christianity through these very accessible readings. These works also lend themselves to good class discussions about the gap between what students have been taught from the pulpit or Sunday School, and what is taught in seminaries to prospective ordinands, especially in mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries.

Once I get past the early church, the sailing gets quite a bit smoother until we get to the Reformation and problems arise again. The students especially love the tales of corruption and scandal in the late medieval church, although they don’t much like excursions into Scholasticism (which I explain is a necessary evil). But then for my religious students, denominational rivalries raised their heads once we begin examining the various battles between Catholics and Protestants, and between the assorted Protestant groups.

The quiet of the eighteenth century comes as a relief, but then we must confront conflicts between science and religion, especial Darwin, and the issues of biblical textual criticism, especially when I take a detour to the Jesus Seminar. Nevertheless, the class discussions become much more lively as we traverse these mine fields. The students are so exhausted by the time we reach the twentieth century and so preoccupied with their final writing assignment that Vatican II and Ecumenism can’t provoke much excitement out of them. The kick-start we get in discussing Crossan or Ehrman at the beginning of the course, however, enables students to expressing their views comfortably but generally respectfully on the controversial issues we confront.

My Reformation class works out quite differently. As an upper division course, most of the students are either history majors who have had the European survey course or religious studies majors who have a much better grounding in the material. Nevertheless, I know that many of them have little understanding about the differences among denominations and that since so many of them are not active churchgoers, they do not comprehend specific variations that emerged from the Reformation. Therefore, I require all students to make a series of local church visits so that they really study the transformations emerging from the sixteenth century. They attend a Traditional Catholic service, which still uses the Tridentine Mass; a Lutheran service; a Pentecostal church after discussing the Protestant radicals; and finally an Episcopal service at the local Cathedral. I assign them a short paper after each visit in which they analyze one aspect of the service: the music, liturgy, method of praying, the sermon, or the physical setting.

At the end of the semester, they produce an historical recreation of a Calvinist service in our chapel, in which they reconstruct the sermon, liturgy, and appropriate music working with our Dean of the Chapel and the choral director. The students break into groups: one selects a sermon by Calvin and then edits it into the time constraints dictated by the dean. Another group working with the music director of the chapel selects suitable music for the service. Others map out the liturgy or the vestments to be worn by the clergy. At the end of the semester, the class takes over the regular Sunday chapel service and conducts the historical recreation on the basis of the research they have completed. Even the “unchurched,” because of their church visits and research into the Reformation, are able to produce a surprisingly accurate historical recreation of a typical Sunday service in Calvin’s Geneva. A young Jewish student did a marvelous imitation of Jean Calvin the last time I taught the course. (We don’t, however, have Michael Servetus show up at the end, although that would certainly add color).

In either course, students often ask me if I am a Christian or not. Many assume that I am not because of the assignments I give them that seem to undermine traditional church teachings. One Southern Baptist student was clearly in shock by what I was presenting. The student informed me that his mother was planning to drive over from Lakeland to sit in my class to correct my errors. She planned to convert me to Christianity. I started to tell him that in fact I am an Episcopalian but then thought better of it. I discovered several Southern Baptist students who do not regard Episcopalians as Christians. So my battle might have been lost anyhow.

Finally, I regularly take advantage of the college’s generous support for outside speakers to supplement my courses. There is a great deal of local interest in religious topics, particularly controversies over the historical Jesus. I have therefore been able to invite to campus a number of prominent scholars to visit my class and also deliver very well attended public lectures. In addition to John Dominic Crossan, Rollins College has hosted in the last decade Jack Spong, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and this spring Marcus Borg. We always fill our lecture hall when the visiting scholars present the public lectures, while Karen Armstrong filled our 500-seat chapel. Part of the speaker’s obligation includes interacting with our students in small setting, thereby greatly enriching my courses.

I hope that many members of the ASCH will respond to this post with their own teaching experiences. Much as we might think of ourselves as just ordinary run-of-the-mill historians, our subject matter—unlike the rise of industrialism or the impact of the Atlantic voyages—can often cause controversy, heated arguments, resentment (once I had a graduate student clobber another after class, but that’s another story), and anger. I’d like to know how others in the profession handle these situations.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Theological Roots of the Nineteenth-Century Women’s Movement

Monday, September 24th, 2012

by J. G. Brown

The brouhaha over Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” has been especially virulent in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. It dominated our media for weeks. Akin received a degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and attends a church associated with that seminary (Presbyterian Church of America). The media frenzy compelled Covenant Theological Seminary to issue an official statement denouncing rape as a violent and heinous crime.

But whether or not Todd’s church promotes an “anti-woman” culture is a question not readily settled by public pronouncements. There is a certain irony in all this, in that Akin’s church is a part of the broader evangelical tradition, a tradition that was largely responsible for the emancipation of women in the early nineteenth century. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this evangelical conundrum, in an attempt to understand its relationship to culture, then and now.

The Presbyterian Church in America and Covenant Theological Seminary have a well articulated position on the role of women in the church. The PCA believes that men and women have equal value in the eyes of God but different roles or functions within the life of the church. Women, for instance, are barred from being deacons and elders. Church polity concerning women is based largely on I Timothy 2:11–14, a biblical passage that prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. The PCA believes that male spiritual headship/female subordination is grounded in the created order, an order that Christianity redeems but does not alter. The English Standard Version Study Bible (2008) explains what is called the complementarian view on the I Timothy passage.

The commentators support the view that gender roles in the church are rooted in the created order. They also remark that this passage does not have “in view the role of women in leadership outside the church (e.g., business or government).”1 The PCA/ complementarians claim that they are upholding the historic Protestant interpretation of this passage. This may be an assertion easily made by theologians, but can it be substantiated by historians? New research on early Protestant beliefs concerning natural law and the spiritual and temporal kingdoms brings the complementarian claim into serious question. It also provides new insights into the significant role evangelicalism played in the emancipation of women.

The early Protestant reformers held to a two-kingdom view that was in some ways similar to their medieval forebears. This is especially clear in the writings of both Luther and Calvin. They both defend the moral goodness of the sword-bearing state and the Christian’s participation in that state. They believe Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, both ordained by God. These two kingdoms, however, operate for different ends and under very different rules.

The spiritual kingdom is expressed on earth in the church, which has a redemptive and eschatological purpose. It does not bear the sword and submits to the redemptive ethic of Scripture as revealed in Jesus Christ. The temporal kingdom, on the other hand, can use the sword and is based in natural law. Natural law, for the Reformers, is that law imprinted on the consciences of humankind (Romans 2:14-15) and found in the moral principles underlying the Mosaic law. Natural law also finds its origin in creation ordinances.2 Consistent with Protestant convictions, both Luther and Calvin believed that sin has marred human ability to fully discern natural law outside of God’s special revelation and regenerating grace; nevertheless, through the remnants of natural law, God graciously restrains the consequences of sin in this world.

After doing extensive research, I have concluded that most prominent theologians in the English-speaking world, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, held something similar to a natural law/two-kingdom view. For them, natural law/creation ordinances mandated the subordination of women to men in the temporal kingdom. The church, on the other hand, was animated by egalitarian principles, such as the priesthood of all believers. The church might honor “the order preserved by the world” (as Luther expressed it), but the principle of male headship/female subordination was not organic to the church.

This is spelled out clearly in Luther’s exegesis of Galatians 3:28: “In the world, and according to the sinful nature, there is a great inequality of persons, and this must be observed carefully . . . . But in Christ there is no law, nor difference of persons, there is only one body, one spirit, one hope one gospel.”3 Protestant exegetes, up to the nineteenth century, believed social hierarchy, including male headship and female subordination, was a necessary component of temporal social order, established by God at creation. In this respect they were conservative, re-enforcing traditional cultural norms. However, contrary to today’s conservative theologians, they did not make creation ordinances organic to life in the church.

A survey of commentaries written before the mid- nineteenth century, dealing with pivotal passages, such as I Timothy 2:11-14, I Corinthians 11:3 and I Corinthians 14:34-35 confirms a natural law/two kingdom view. For instance, John Calvin believes that, in I Corinthians 11:3, man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman. Yet, at the same time, in Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Calvin resolves this dilemma as follows: “When he [Paul] says there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which external qualities are not regarded or made any account of.”

This spiritual kingdom has its present expression in the church, and, in fact, it is this spiritual liberty and equality that underlie the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, in this world, our spiritual liberty and equality in Christ always should respect social order and decorum. Therefore Calvin goes on to qualify his position:

In the meantime, however, he [Paul] does not disturb civil order and honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here [I Corinthians 11:3], on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum—which is part of ecclesiastical polity.”4

Calvin later again affirms this principle that male headship reflects “external arrangement and political decorum.”5 He would regard today’s complementarian assignation to men of “spiritual headship” as a strange co-mingling of spiritual and temporal kingdom principles. In accordance with basic Protestant doctrine, Calvin says that the spiritual head of woman is Christ only; however, in the kingdom of this world, she is subject to man. Later theologians follow a similar line of thought.

Puritan Matthew Poole argues that the headship of man over women, referred to in I Corinthians 11:3 is strictly “political or economical.” He also believes that when Paul says that the “head of every man is Christ,” he is referring to all church members, male and female, since Christ is the spiritual head of men and women alike. Baptist theologian John Gill writes that natural law/creation ordinances establish the subordination of women in the civil realm. (Consequently, female subordination is also observed in the church.) Evangelical Anglican exegete, Thomas Scott, says nothing of male spiritual headship and restricts female subordination to “this lower world.”6

Consistent with their understanding of the different principles that govern the civil and spiritual kingdoms, most early theologians also recognized the possibility of something contra mundum in the life of the church. Luther writes in his exegesis of I Timothy 2 that “if the Lord were to raise up a woman for us to listen to, we would allow her to rule like Huldah.”7 Calvin acknowledged the possibility of women with an extraordinary call, as did Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, Thomas Scott, John Wesley, and Adam Clarke. In fact, Methodist theologian Adam Clarke even reprimanded women who failed to act/speak under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.8 Today’s complementarians either reject or ignore the idea of the extraordinary call.

Theologians who were part of the Magisterial Reformation often gave the temporal kingdom an expansive authority — and sometimes distinctions between the two kingdoms were a bit muddled. However, none made creation ordinances foundational to the spiritual kingdom/church, and most recognized the possibility of women with an extraordinary call. No wonder it was in the church or during religious revivals that the voices of women were first heard in American history.

This was a phenomena that was indeed something new under the sun. The egalitarian theology of the spiritual kingdom does much to explain why there were female preachers, evangelists, and exhorters long before there were female politicians, business leaders, and academicians. In 1827, Harriet Livermore preached before the U.S. Congress (and twice again thereafter), long before that august body would countenance a woman sitting among their ranks.9

Lillian O’Connor’s study of the rhetorical styles of women involved in the ante-bellum reform movement found that almost all the early women orators spoke in what was called “pulpit style.” This was because these women had first presented their thoughts publicly inside a church, often from a pulpit.10 Catherine Brekus’s painstaking research on female preaching in America between 1740 and 1845 does much to re-discover the voices of women who others had long ago attempted to obliterate from the historical record. These women were motivated by spiritual kingdom theology —that in Christ there is neither male nor female. They answered an extraordinary call. The narrow path they blazed through the wilderness has become a broad highway of opportunity for women today. Theological ideas do have consequences, then and now.


[1] English Standard Version Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2328.

[2] For a full treatment of natural law and the two kingdoms see David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms : A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963), 356.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 354.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a detailed account of Poole, Gill, Scott, and other exegetes on this issue see J. G. Brown’s book, An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, The Authentic Traditional Interpretation and Why It Disappeared (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012), Chapter One.

[7] Martin Luther, “Lectures on I Timothy” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 28 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1973), 280.

[8] See An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, Chapter One.

[9] Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1, 12.

[10] Lillian O’Connor, >Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 115–16.

John Knox and His Role in the English Reformation

Friday, May 11th, 2012

by Roberta Shepherd


© Copyright Gwen and James Anderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Via Geograph

Presbyterians are typically aware that John Knox was a leading figure in the Reformation in Scotland. He was also involved in the effort to establish the Reformation in England. Knox was born around 1514, and raised in Haddington, Scotland. Educated as a Roman Catholic priest, he did not join a priestly order but worked as a notary and as a tutor to the sons of Scottish nobles.

The Scottish government supported the Roman Catholic Church as the only true religion and allowed them to burn Protestants at the stake as heretics. During the 1540’s Knox became a Protestant, and in fear of being arrested and executed, he joined other Protestants who were seeking refuge from the Scottish government in St. Andrews’ Castle in April 1547. While at St. Andrew’s, Knox received his call to preach, and his sermons vigorously defended the Reformed faith. In August 1548 the Castle fell to the French allies of Scotland, and the inhabitants became prisoners of war. Some were imprisoned in castles in France; Knox and a few others were consigned to French galleys as slaves. After nineteen months, and extensive negotiations between the Duke of Somerset in England and the French King, some of the prisoners were released, including Knox.

In Scotland the people embraced Protestantism and opposed the government imposition of religion. In contrast, in England the people believed the King had the right to establish the religious doctrine for the country and appoint the clergy. Preachers were licensed by the King to preach. The advisors to Edward VI, who was a minor, had begun to implement Protestant reforms and they needed strong preachers to support the new doctrine.

In the spring of 1549, the English and Scots were fighting each other along the Scottish border, and Knox believed he was still in danger of arrest and execution by the Roman Catholics in Scotland for his Reformed views. Knox was offered, and accepted, a position as a preacher in Berwick-on-Tweed, an English military post three miles from the Scottish border, located in the diocese of Durham. Although the first Book of Common Prayer (“common” meant public) had been published and by law was to replace the Mass, the Bishop of Durham continued to support the celebration of the Mass. Knox was the first in the diocese to preach Reformed doctrine, and he won many converts.

Reformed preachers brought a very different experience to worship from the Roman Catholic priests. Priests gave short homilies since the primary focus of the service was celebration of the Mass. In contrast, Reformation preachers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger, and Ulrich Zwingli, typically preached on Scripture for two or three hours at a time, sometimes several times each week. Knox preached from both the Old and New Testaments, first reading the passage, then explaining it. His preaching, which he maintained was inspired by the Holy Spirit, influenced many to convert to Reformed beliefs. Knox looked to 2 Timothy 4:2 as his guide: “Preach thou the word, be fervent, be it in season or out of season: Improve, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”

He later preached in Newcastle-on-Tyne, the seat of the diocese, as well as Berwick. His preaching is believed to have attracted Reformed Scots across the border to move to Berwick and Newcastle. During 1552 Knox was appointed as one of six Royal Chaplains to Edward VI. His role was to travel and preach. The Royal Chaplains also preached at court to the King and Council.

In the autumn of 1552, the second Book of Common Prayer was being prepared to address the shortcomings of the first edition. This contained a new instruction that the communicant was required to kneel while receiving the bread and wine. The Reformed preachers were concerned that this would encourage the communicant to worship the elements instead of Jesus. Knox rode to London with the Duke of Northumberland in October.

© Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Via Geograph

A few days before the Book of Common Prayer was to go to press, Knox preached a sermon to the King and Council at Windsor Castle against the new requirement to kneel during communion, preferring to sit at a table as the disciples did in the Gospels. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer defended the practice of kneeling, but the Council appeared to have been swayed by Knox’s reasoning. When the Book of Common Prayer went to press, it contained the “black rubric” that kneeling was an act of respect and did not constitute worship of the elements. A rubric was an instruction, and was normally printed with red ink. In this case, the printer was out of red ink and so printed it in black. Jasper Ridley wrote in his biography of Knox that “The black rubric would never have been issued if it had not been for Knox’s sermon at Windsor.”

That same autumn Knox also preached against one of the articles of the Forty-two Articles of Religion which declared the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer to be consistent with Scripture. Although several of the preachers collaborated in writing the sermon, it was Knox who delivered it before the King and Council. His objection was primarily the requirement to kneel for communion. This article was modified to state that the doctrine of the Book was consistent with Scripture. Ridley considered Knox to have been one of the leaders of the Reformed preachers in England (John Knox 126-128).

The Duke of Northumberland, a Regent for Edward VI, was displeased with the immigration of Scottish Protestants to Berwick and Newcastle to hear Knox preach. Knox was offered the post of Bishop of Rochester, and a position as Vicar at All Hallows Church in London, both of which he refused, arguing that he would better serve the church elsewhere. He was concerned that these posts would corrupt him, and he wanted to return to Berwick and Newcastle where he had close friends and a fiancée. However, he was assigned to Amersham in Buckinghamshire that spring, which was near London.

As discussed above, as a Scotsman he was not limited by the English worldview that the monarch had the right to establish the religion of the people. He was aware of two things in spring of 1553: Edward’s half sister Mary was still being allowed to celebrate Mass, and Edward was terminally ill with tuberculosis. He predicted that the Roman Catholics would again take control of England and persecute the Protestants. In the summer of 1553 Edward VI died and Mary I ascended the throne. She reinstated the Roman Catholic religion and began to arrest the Reformed preachers and bishops. Knox continued to travel and preach until the early fall, at which time he went into hiding and eventually fled to the Continent in January 1554.

While on the Continent, Knox accepted a call to preach to English exiles in Frankfurt. He participated with William Whittingham, Christopher Goodman, and others in drawing up an order of service known as the Book of Common Order as a substitute for the Book of Common Prayer. Due to political machinations by an English preacher, Dr. Cox, who preferred the Book of Common Prayer, Knox lost his post and moved to Geneva. Part of the congregation in Frankfurt followed him to Geneva and they formed a new church. John Calvin approved the Book of Common Order and its format was used by the Presbyterians in England and the Reformed Church in Scotland.

Peter Lorimer wrote that the manner in which Knox celebrated the Lord’s Supper was influential in the Puritan religion in England later that century. When Mary I died, her half-sister, Elizabeth I, reinstated Protestantism. During her reign Knox’s approach to worship spread in the northern borders of England. Goodman, Whittingham, and others of Knox’s colleagues on the Continent returned to England and formed the Puritan church. Knox returned permanently to Scotland in 1560 and was involved in the establishment of the Reformed Church in that country.

Scripture and the State During the English Reformation

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

by André A. Gazal


Elizabeth I on the frontispiece of the Bishops’ Bible (1659)

The foundational belief of the evangelical Reformers in the sixteenth century was sola Scriptura, the principle that Scripture was the ultimate authority in determining Christian doctrine. This is not to say that they (the Anabaptists notwithstanding) discounted the interpretive function of earlier Christian tradition. Even a cursory reading of works by Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-64), as well as many other Reformers, would show that they frequently cited patristic authors, especially St. Augustine (354-430), as authoritative support for their particular interpretations of various biblical texts. Rather, the Reformers asserted the supremacy of Scripture to the writings of Church Fathers and the pronouncements of general councils in establishing articles of faith, with the Church Fathers acting as helpful interpreters.

While the Reformers typically contended for Scripture as the sole basis for doctrines touching salvation such as justification, other thinkers in the sixteenth century, some of whom agreed with the Reformer’s soteriology, while others did not, argued that the same Scriptures gave divine instruction for the state and its institutions. One such place where direct appeal to Scripture was made to validate some newly acquired prerogatives by the state was Tudor England.

The account of Henry VIII’s (r. 1509-47) relentless pursuit of an annulment from his marriage to Katherine of Aragon is well known. When the controversy reached the point at which the pope summoned Henry to Rome with regards to the case, the issue came to involve more than the divorce. It now evolved into a dispute concerning the king’s authority in his own realm. At this juncture Henry’s government and apologists employed an array of means to defend the position that there was no authority superior to the king’s in his domain. One of the definitive pieces of legislation, which both facilitated the divorce and laid the basis for the eventual severance of England from Roman obedience, The Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533), averred as the grounds of the finality of royal authority “that this realm of England is an empire,” meaning the king’s power in his own realm is essentially imperial, or that it derived from that of the Roman emperors.

A year later, Parliament passed, at the urging of Henry and his government, the Act of Supremacy, which separated the Church in England from the jurisdiction of Roman see, declaring the king “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” In declaring the monarch “Supreme Head,” the Act gave him “full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts, and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may be lawfully reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed, corrected, restrained, or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God….” By legislative fiat, ecclesiastical jurisdiction became a central feature of royal authority.

King Henry VIII on the frontispiece to the Great Bible (1799)


While royal supremacy became the law of the realm by act of Parliament, its authority did not rest on statute alone. Apologists for the regime presented this distinctive feature of the English national church as a doctrine deriving from Scripture as the Word of God. This required using Scripture in a particular way. These Tudor apologists, most of whom were trained theologians, regarded the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua through Nehemiah) as normative and therefore prescriptive.

In other words, the historical narratives of the Old Testament, which specifically record the actions of Israelite kings such as David, Solomon, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah with regard to religious matters, showed that monarchs should exercise authority over church matters. Having established royal supremacy as a biblical doctrine in this way, the apologists would then cite the Church Fathers, civil and canon law as well as various ecclesiastical histories to confirm their interpretation and application of Scripture.

Two principal works which defend royal supremacy primarily as a biblical doctrine by employing this interpretive approach were The True Difference Between Ye Regal and Ecclesiastical Power (1534) by Edward Foxe (1496-1538), and Stephen Gardiner’s On True Obedience (1535). At this point, it is interesting to note that Foxe was an evangelical of a Lutheran persuasion while Gardiner was a traditional Catholic (who later repudiated his position on royal supremacy), which shows that during the Henrician period, royal supremacy was a doctrine promoted in England by theologians of both confessions, even though they disagreed strongly on other doctrines, like justification.

During the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI (r.1547-53), royal supremacy functioned as a biblical doctrine which served the purpose of evangelical church reform. Towards this end, evangelical proponents of royal supremacy utilized the same interpretive scheme, especially emphasizing the initiatives taken by Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah to eradicate idolatry as constituting divine, biblical mandate for the young king of England to advance aggressively the cause evangelical religion throughout the realm. A representative example of this evangelical appropriation of the doctrine of royal supremacy is the speech given by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) at Edward’s coronation. This same use of the biblical doctrine of royal supremacy is also present in the sermons of Hugh Latimer (1487-1555), who was one of the young Edward’s favorite preachers.

After the reign of Mary Tudor (r. 1553-58), who had the Act of Supremacy repealed, her sister Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) ascended to the throne. Under Elizabeth, Parliament passed another Act of Supremacy (1559) in which the monarch was styled, “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” During her long reign, royal supremacy became one of the central doctrines of an institutionalized Protestant national church. As did their predecessors, the Elizabethan apologists also portrayed royal supremacy as a biblical doctrine by assigning a normative and prescriptive function to the Old Testament narrative passages recounting the actions taken by the kings of Israel and Judah in the interest of religion.

The support of royal supremacy as a biblical idea by these means comes to most succinct, eloquent expression by John Jewel (1522-71) in his Apology of the Church of England (1562):

We truly grant no further liberty to our magistrates than that we know hath both been given by the Word of God and also confirmed by the examples of the best governed commonwealths. For, besides, that a Christian prince hath the charge of both tables committed to him by God, to the end he may understand that not temporal matters only, but also religious and ecclesiastical causes pertain to his office; besides also that God by his prophets often and earnestly commandeth the king to cut down the groves, to break down the images and altars of idols, and to write out a book of the law for himself; and besides that the prophet Isaiah saith, “A king ought to be patron and nurse of the church.”

Scripture, as the Word of God, consigns to the monarch ecclesiastical authority that he or she is to exercise for the well-being of the Church.

For the exception of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), who, towards the end of the sixteenth century, based his defense of royal supremacy on natural law, the majority of apologists continued, even into the seventeenth century, contending for it as a biblical doctrine by means of the interpretive methodology established during the reign of Henry VIII. Indeed, the Reformation in England united Scripture to the scepter so that the Church would submit to the monarch as its “head,” or “governor,” in keeping with the “Word of God.”

The Unexpected Consequences of Scholarly Standards

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

by Euan Cameron

We are all familiar with the expression “be careful what you wish for”. The phrase has become a staple of journalistic headlines and even rap lyrics. When we aim for what we think is a clearly defined goal, dramatic unexpected consequences may follow.

This essay suggests that the quest for ever more precise religious scholarship ended up by causing a crisis of uncertainty – entirely against the expectations and the wishes of those who began that quest. In the Reformation, scholar-theologians laid massive expectations on the text of Scripture to direct, authenticate and justify their conclusions. They believed that Scripture, by the action of the Holy Spirit, authenticated itself, independent of any institution. That implied, however, that the text of Scripture had to be established with the greatest possible exactitude. Consequently, reformers relied upon ‘sacred philology’ to purify and clarify the text.

Renaissance humanists had already begun to apply techniques of textual editing to the Bible. The first step was to restore access to the Scriptures in the original languages, and in the ancient paraphrases (the Targums and others) conserved in the Semitic languages of the Near East. The great Polyglot Bible of Alcalà, completed around 1520, was only the first of four scholarly polyglot editions of Scripture: those of Antwerp, Paris and London appeared between c.1570 and c.1658.

 Library of Congress

Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares, 1514-1517

These ruinously expensive scholarly tours de force allowed a few very, very learned readers to compare the insights of translators and redactors of Old and New Testament from past centuries. They included not just Hebrew and Greek editions but Aramaic paraphrases, variant Latin translations, and versions of the sacred texts in Arabic, Persian and Samaritan Hebrew.

Yet this scholarly enterprise could not quite hide the fact that the manuscripts used, which purported to contain the “original” texts of Scripture, were far from perfect. The Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts dated from late in the first millennium CE: no earlier copies were known until the 20th century. More perplexing still was the Greek New Testament. The convenient study edition in the early 16th century was not the Alcalà Polyglot, but the much more readily available Greek and Latin of Erasmus, first issued in 1516 and revised several times thereafter.

Erasmus had limited Greek texts at his disposal – at first he had no absolutely complete manuscript of the New Testament. Those which he had were medieval Byzantine copies. Yet Erasmus’s New Testament, after multiple revisions, underlay Protestant Greek Bibles of the early modern period. The scholar-publisher Robert Estienne revised it several times in the 1550s in Paris and Geneva (coincidentally introducing verse numbering into the New Testament for the first time in 1551). Théodore de Bèze, Calvin’s disciple and successor at Geneva, performed further editorial work. By the 1630s this composite edition became known as the ‘received text’ or textus receptus of the Christian New Testament. It acquired (and still holds in some circles) a quasi-canonical status despite being inconsistent with many early authorities.

By the 19th century, many scholars acknowledged that tinkering with this ‘received text’ was pointless: a complete new edition would be needed, based on the earliest surviving manuscripts and on quotations in Patristic authorities. Karl Lachmann argued in 1831 that the textus receptus should be ‘received’ by no-one. As Constantin von Tischendorff wrote in the tract published as When Were Our Gospels Written? (1866) “we have at last hit upon a better plan … which is to set aside this textus receptus altogether, and to construct a fresh text, derived immediately from the most ancient and authoritative sources. In this way only can we secure a text approximating as closely as possible to that which came from the Apostles.”

Center for the Study of New Testament ManuscriptsThe work of Tischendorff, Westcott and Hort, Nestle and Aland, and many others would yield us the Greek New Testament in the version used today. However, in the meantime scholars had adjusted to the insurmountable difficulties of establishing a single, canonical, “perfect” text of Scripture. Editing Scripture came to mean collecting, sorting, and classifying divergent readings. In 1707 John Mill published an edition of the New Testament containing some 30,000 variants. Mill also urged that the “harder” reading, the one which seemed problematic or even at times absurd, was more likely to be ancient than the smoother and more comfortable one. The sacred text should be sought in an inherently perplexing and difficult form. The scholar should identify the densest critical thickets of difficulty, and try to pick through to the most ancient readings.

Given that Protestantism had laid such emphasis on the authority of self-interpreting and self-authenticating scripture, this was not good news. Biblical scholars, who were supposedly intended to restore and preserve the text of Scripture for the theologians to work on, seemed instead to be telling people how difficult it was to be sure what the sacred text actually said! A series of scandalous books in the 17th century made the situation more troubling. Louis Cappel (1585-1658) Professor of Hebrew in the French reformed academy at Saumur, echoed the theories of the Jewish philologist Elias Levita (1469-1549). He reasoned that the vowel points in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Scripture were not authentic but very late, around a thousand years later than the archaic text to which they had been added. Losing the vowel points meant that much reading of Hebrew Scripture became a matter of interpretation rather than certainty.

In the later 17th century two other authors, neither a Protestant, added fuel to the fires. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that, on the internal evidence of the Hebrew Bible itself, it must represent a post-exilic compilation of mostly anonymous or pseudonymous authorities. The French Oratorian Priest Richard Simon (1638-1712) refuted Protestant claims about the sole authority of Scripture, by pointing out that the text had undergone innumerable redactions and transformations. One must either believe that all editorial interventions since Scripture was written were also divinely inspired; or, one must credit the Catholic Church with supernatural authority in conserving and interpreting it.

Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts

Frontispiece to Mill's New Testament, 1707

This accumulation of scholarly questions affected the work of dogmatic theologians. Scripture could no longer confer the absolute certainty that the confessional debates of the age demanded. One might question, in truth, whether the minutely detailed dogmatic questions that occupied the energies of the framers of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, or the delegates to the Synod of Dort or the Westminster Assembly of Divines, could ever have been answered conclusively from any scriptural text – despite the entrenched habit of voluminous proof-texting which typically accompanied these enterprises and their Catholic rivals. In response to the skeptics about Scripture and the hesitations of the textual critics, some 17th-century dogmatic Protestant theologians formulated and laid greater stress on the dogma of ‘scriptural inerrancy’.


In the Formula of Consensus of the Swiss Churches of 1675, the first articles proclaimed that Hebrew Scripture as preserved in the traditional text was infallibly accurate and reliable, and explicitly refuted those who had tried to bring it into doubt by comparison with other antique Semitic-language editions. Over time this approach became formalized as the doctrine that Scripture, correctly conserved and faithfully interpreted, was literally inerrant in all its parts. The principle survives in some conservative Protestant movements – though inerrancy is sometimes attributed to the hypothetical “autograph” text rather than any one of the surviving variants. (Whether it would be attributed to the lost letters of Paul, alluded to but not conserved in the canon, is an interesting question.)

Stepping back a little, a fascinating and unexpected outcome emerges from this whole process. A firewall was put in place between the biblical scholar and the systematic theologian. In the time of the early reformers, it would hardly have occurred to anyone that these two academic practices could be distinguished, let alone opposed to one another. The same theologians who wrote the summae of Reformation theology were also commentators and exegetes.Yet by the end of the 17th century if not before, the foundations had been laid of our present academic specializations.

Biblical scholars focused on the immense technical difficulties of reconstructing the text. They tried to interpret it in the light of the historical and cultural settings in which it was written. Systematic theologians organized doctrines schematically according to the heads of doctrine. They undertook this task with some dependence on the catechisms and confessions of faith of their churches. The impulses of the biblical scholar and the theologian might overlap, for instance in the writing of pastoral commentaries: but their instincts had diverged – and continue to do so. The problems experienced in keeping our theological curriculum coherent for pastoral and ministerial needs lie deeply rooted in the legacy of the early modern period.

A related process separated the church historians from the biblical scholars. At the end of the Middle Ages and in the early Reformation, it was assumed that the chronology of the world recorded in the Hebrew Bible offered an accurate and trustworthy account of events, including the ages of the patriarchs. It was also assumed that history recorded in the Scriptures was older than that of classical Greek and Roman antiquity. The two narratives could, however, be integrated into one story – and needed to be, since classical historians filled in the gaps between the two Testaments. Biblical world history had a theological message. All monarchies, governments and peoples, whether of believers or unbelievers, were governed by the providential and judgmental reign of God. God raised up and deposed monarchies (especially the great ‘world monarchies’ which supposedly dominated the Mediterranean world in antiquity) and God’s judgment could be seen in their rise and fall.

From Lorenz Faust's _Anatomia Statuae Danielis_, 1585, depicting the giant statue from Nebuchanezzar's vision in Daniel 2.

Those were the big theological questions. Some writers linked biblical history to apocalyptic predictions. By reading the signs in scripture, one could discern how phases in the history of the world were leading towards the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment. The craft of biblical ‘chronology’, more technical and less profound, fused with this theological history. No-one before 1600 saw anything absurd in totting up the ages of the patriarchs, prophets and kings of Hebrew antiquity, to work out how old the world was at the time of its great events – especially those of salvation history. One could also calculate how many years had passed since creation to the then present day.


Biblical chronology or ‘supputation’ attracted some of the best theological minds of the era. The Hebrew Scriptures used for the Vulgate gave different dates for the ages of the patriarchs than those found in the Septuagint Greek translation (and therefore in Eusebius). Most medieval and early modern ‘supputators’ favoured the Hebrew numbering. Protestant computers of the age of the world such as Martin Luther and Heinrich Bullinger came up with a figure around 3970-3975 for the age of the world at the time of the birth of Christ. They then integrated the chronology of the ancient world with the prophecies of the Book of Daniel. These prophecies, specifically chapter 9:24-27, appeared to foretell the coming of the Messiah at the precise time (490 years after the alleged writing of the Book of Daniel) when Jesus entered on the final days of his earthly ministry. Thus they “proved” the relevance and reliability of Hebrew Scripture as a key to Christian revelation.

Scholars of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century did not know when to stop. They tried to accommodate, integrate and reconcile all the calendars of the antique civilizations then known. The fruits appeared in the fantastically elaborate, linguistically and culturally exotic work of Joseph Justus Scaliger, On the Emendation of Times (1583). After pages of intricate computation and argument, Scaliger estimated the date of Jesus’s nativity according to five different calendars, concluding that it took place in year 3948 since creation. After acid remarks about his rivals, Scaliger received a multi-volume rebuttal from the enormously learned French Jesuit Denis Petau (1583-1652) in the 1620s – 1630s.

By the mid-17th century serious observers wondered whether one could ever achieve an accurate chronology of world history. If such prodigious erudition could not bring certainty, nothing could. Scholarship actually made the problem worse. In 1616 Pietro della Valle brought to Europe the first text of the Samaritan Pentateuch. This text, written in a form of Hebrew and therefore not to be dismissed as a translation, offered biblical chronologies which matched neither the Hebrew nor the Greek versions (they were shorter than both).

When the best efforts of textual and historical critics failed so spectacularly, it became conceivable, if not yet acceptable, to suppose that the Scriptures were never intended as precise guides to religious doctrine or historical understanding. The eccentric French Huguenot Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676) achieved a succès de scandale in 1655 by claiming that Adam was not the first human being, only the first ancient Hebrew. Most scholars did not take him seriously at the time; but his notions fed more skeptical thinkers in the following century.

In the Protestant world, Christian belief and inquiry survived the disintegration of early modern certainties. Romantic theologians like Schleiermacher welcomed and embraced the detaching of the religious vision from claims about scientific realities. However, the disintegration of Christian learning into a range of distinct and sometimes competing truth-claims, nurtured in often separate intellectual guilds, made the life of the churches more difficult (as well, perhaps, as more authentic and realistic).

As historians we should inquire how this disintegration took place, since it regulates how we think and work today. The Reformation played a critical role, but not the role sometimes assigned to it. The Reformers did not believe in the breakdown of authority or the primacy of individual judgment. They assigned supreme authority to inspired Scripture: but they then laid an unbearable burden on critical study of the Scriptures. They championed scholarly techniques, which were fated to undermine rather than support such authority. The Reformation sponsored infinitely precise investigation into the sources of faith. Rather than establishing one secure ground for truth, such inquiry showed that the hoped-for certainty in doctrine and history could never be attained. Divine truth must always be discerned, if ever, through the messy and incoherent business of human affairs and human texts.

Scholarship had played a crucial part in this discovery. It had done so in spite of itself, and in this learning process its failures proved far more important than its successes. Be careful what you wish for.

Beginnings of the Reformation(s) in Western Christianity

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

by Craig Atwood

Church history has traditionally been divided into four epochs: the Patristic Age, the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and the modern era. When I did my doctoral studies at I had to complete comprehensive exams in each of these eras of the church, and there was little question that these divisions accurately reflect the turning points of Christian history. Aside from the fact that this schema ignores the histories of the Greek, Coptic Orthodox, East Syrian, Jacobite, and other Asian and African churches, it even distorts the history of Western Christian. In recent years historians have begun referring to Protestant reformations instead of a single Reformation that began on or around the 31st of October in 1517, which is a step forward in better understanding of a complex era. Historians discuss the Swiss Reformation or the English Reformation or the Radical Reformation, but all of these reformations are confined to the 16th century. These groups are called Protestants, but it has proven difficult to identify what is common to these groups. The “Protestant” reformers disagreed, sometimes violently, over doctrine, ecclesiastical structure, sacraments, and biblical interpretation.

Was there anything that the myriad expressions of the “Reformation” held in common? There is one practice that clearly identified a church as separated from the Roman Catholic Church prior to 1965: lay persons could drink from the chalice in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.


I think it would be much easier and clearly for historians to use the lay chalice as the marker of the spread of reformation in the early modern period than abstract doctrines like “justification by faith” or “sola scriptura.” Despite the importance of the lay chalice in the history of reformation in Western Christianity, historians pay little attention to the revolution that occurred on October 28, 1414 when a priest named Jakoubek of Stribro intentionally violated canon law by offering the chalice to lay persons in Prague.

John Hus makes an appearance in most church history textbooks, either as a “heretic” or forerunner of Luther, but church history texts and course syllabi rarely acknowledge that Czech Reformation continued after the death of Hus. Two churches in Bohemia had already rejected canon law, separated from the papacy, questioned the authority of church councils, and established their own ecclesiastical structures before Luther posted his famous theses. The Czech reformers were the first theologians to make the lay chalice central to church reform, and it was in Bohemia that the Catholic Church tried to abolish the lay practice through military force.

Jakoubek, a master at the University of Prague, decided that the Fourth Lateran Council was guilty of heresy when it reserved the chalice to the priests. This was not a minor issue. The same council that condemned Hus to death also repudiated communion in both kinds (or utraquism). When King Vaclav of Bohemia tried to enforce the prohibition of the lay chalice in 1419 a priest named Jan Zelivsky led a popular rebellion that began with the defenestration of town councilors in Prague. The five crusades launched against the rebellious Hussites were the first of the fratricidal wars of religion that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and should be included in discussions of religion and violence. On the battlefields in Bohemian it was the cross of the crusaders against the chalice of the Hussites.

The Czech Reformation produced three distinct churches in the 15th century. The Utraquist Church tried unsuccessfully for two centuries to reach an accord with the papacy that would allow for the lay chalice. The Church of Tabor lasted only from 1424 to 1451, but it developed some of the doctrines and practices that were adopted by later Protestants, most notably the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and the restoration of confirmation as a key ritual. In 1457 the first pacifist church was founded in the village of Kunwald in Bohemia. A decade later this Unity of the Brethren ordained their own bishop and priests. In the 1520s Martin Luther met with members of the Utraquist Church and the Unity of the Brethren. He examined several texts of the Czech Reformation and agreed that it is necessary for lay persons to have access to the chalice. Luther also published the Brethren’s catechism before writing his own more eloquent expression of basic Christianity. The rest, as they say, is history, or rather the history we are most familiar with.

For more information see: Craig D. Atwood, Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2010).

Reforming Penance: Appeal to the Church Fathers

Friday, November 18th, 2011

by Esther Chung-Kim

In a recent conversation with a faculty colleague, we noticed that most students claimed to be “willing to change their mind” but when presented with a different perspective that debunked previous notions and stereotypes, many in fact chose to remain “unchanged” in their views. If this is true for 21st century young people who are accustomed to a high pace of change on multiple levels, how much harder would it be for people in the 16th century to change a long-held belief and practice about the church? Especially when the belief is about how to solve the problem of sin. This leads us to the concerns around penance and confession, which I know are imprecise terms since they are based on the medieval understanding of “poenitentia,” sometimes rendered as repentance. How did the Protestant reformers introduce a change of view concerning “poenitentia”?

It is well- known among Reformation scholars that the Protestant reformers criticized some of the practices related to penance, but it is less-known how they appealed to an earlier tradition to challenge an existing one. By the late medieval period, ritual penitence was the result of a long development and continual adaptations of older historical traditions and while theologians, confessors and preachers differed in their understanding of just how the sacrament of penance worked to forgive sins, they all agreed that forgiveness was the outcome of a combination of divine grace and human effort.[1] In much of late medieval piety, preachers and people understood penance as a process requiring contrition (remorse over sin), confession (verbal account of sin committed) and satisfaction (amends usually in the form of punishment or renunciation offered by the penitent). These were the necessary steps for a penitent to receive absolution and forgiveness, and ultimately salvation. Because sin had a penalty either on earth or in purgatory, penance, which resolved the problem of sin and its expected consequences, was crucial. Late medieval preachers upheld Mary Magdalene as a model penitent for lay believers to emulate.

While the Protestant reformers initially retained the doctrines of contrition, confession and satisfaction followed by absolution, they criticized the practices of penance in which forgiveness seemed to depend on a person’s own efforts or a priest’s gestures. By relegating human effort and elevating divine grace as sufficient for the remission of sins, Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther understood forgiveness as a gift promised by God and received through faith and therefore not dependent on human contribution or effort. Based on Luther’s thought, Philip Melanchthon, a professor at the University of Wittenberg and a close friend and colleague of Luther, tried to explain how such new thought not only had the support of Scripture but also of the early church tradition. Likewise John Calvin, a pastor and reformer in Geneva tried to explain for Calvinist/Reformed groups how their new thought could be understood as a return to the ancient tradition.

In other words, key Protestant reformers, such as Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin attempted to claim the ancient voices of the past in their efforts to challenge and change late medieval notions about penance. In much of their writings on this topic, both Melanchthon and Calvin listed explicit references to the early church fathers usually for support, and sometimes for correction.[2] The significance of these citations is two-fold. First, they answered the charges of innovation by rooting the reformers’ views in the church’s ancient tradition, even if that ancient tradition needed revision. Second, the reformers considered the rediscovery of ancient Christian writings as an opportunity to rewrite history, i.e. to construct a new interpretation of the ancient tradition that would allow a critique of penitential practices and the religious views sustaining them. The use of the church fathers in Melanchthon and Calvin shows that the appeal to ancient authorities in the context of competing biblical interpretations would serve to revise or subvert existing religious positions. They were able to do this by simultaneously claiming Scripture as their authority and the church fathers as valuable predecessors, in so far as they illumined the meaning of Scripture. In their efforts to criticize late medieval penitential practices, Melanchthon and Calvin claimed the quasi-authority of the early church fathers in addition to Scripture to reform penance and the practices related to it.

[1] Anne T. Thayer, Penitence, Preaching and the Coming of the Reformation, Burlington 2002, p. 48-49.

[2]John Calvin, “Dedication to Simon Grynaeus,” in Ross Mackenzie (trans.): Commentary to the Romans, Grand Rapids 1960, p. 3. Calvin says he is using a different kind of writing and intending something other than what Melanchthon has already achieved illustrating the principal points, since he “neglected many points which require attention.”